No surprise that No. 23 Cincinnati is finding new ways to get Mardy Gilyard the ball.
The electrifying senior scored four touchdowns as part of the third-best scoring performance in school history, reaching the end zone on a punt return, a run and two catches during a 70-3 victory over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday night.
A quick-strike offense scored every which way during a 49-point first half, the biggest in coach Brian Kelly’s three seasons at Cincinnati (2-0). Gilyard was the catalyst, putting together one of the top individual performances in school history.
“As a quarterback, you love to throw to him,” said Tony Pike, who had a hand in four of Cincinnati’s touchdowns. “He can go deep and at the same time, he can take a screen 60 yards. Because of the way they played him tonight with the soft coverages, we were able to find him underneath.”
The Redhawks (1-1) couldn’t catch him.
Gilyard, the Big East’s top returner last season, responded to chants of “Mar-dy! Mar-dy!” by returning the game’s first punt 53 yards. It was the Bearcats’ first punt return for a touchdown in 12 years.
He also had his first career rushing touchdown out of the wildcat formation, and caught two touchdown passes from different quarterbacks.
“I’m just glad the coaches trust me to put me in all those positions and get me the ball in all those different ways,” Gilyard said. “We are a special offense, a special team. No disrespect to the team that won the Big East last year, but this is a special team.”
The senior became the first Bowl Subdivision player to score on a punt return, run and catch in the same game since UCLA’s Maurice Drew did it on Oct. 8, 2005 against California, according to STATS. Drew, who now goes by the last name Jones-Drew, scored five touchdowns in that game.
Cincinnati’s play book has even more ways for Gilyard to score.
“He could throw a pass,” Kelly said. “There is a possibility of it, but I wasn’t going to have him hit for the cycle tonight.”
The 70 points were the third-most in Cincinnati history and the most since a 115-0 win over Kentucky Wesleyan 1921.
The Bearcats played on only four days of rest after their 47-15 season-opening win at Rutgers on Monday. Pike and the rest of the offense were nearly flawless in that one, but opened Saturday’s game with two dropped passes and an incompletion.
Gilyard’s punt return wiped away the cobwebs and started the rout.
Pike threw three touchdown passes and ran 1 yard for another during the first half. He headed to the bench for the final drive of the half, which ended when Gilyard took a short pass from Zach Collaros and dashed 37 yards down the middle of the field for a touchdown.
Even the reserves had their way. Redshirt freshman Darrin Williams returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards. Cincinnati used five quarterbacks in all.
Pike was 17 of 23 for 229 yards in less than a full half. He was the Big East’s offensive player last week for his performance against Rutgers. Gilyard put himself in position to win the honor next week.
The Bearcats unveiled a Big East championship banner after the first quarter. The first home game of the season drew 30,421 fans, roughly 5,000 less than capacity in the conference’s smallest stadium.
The Redhawks also visited Cincinnati in 2007 and lost 59-3. They’ve dropped their last nine games against Bowl Subdivision teams, including the last four by a margin of 244-16.